US: Early Signs of Linguistically-Aware Leadership

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 29 15:37:11 UTC 2009

Early Signs of Linguistically-Aware Leadership

Nataly Kelly and Donald A. DePalma 28 January 2009
Filed under (Culture & Globalism, Multicultural Marketing, Language Industry)

On the newly inaugurated U.S. President's second full workday, he
flexed some linguistic muscle, speaking with a State Department worker
in Bahasa Indonesia, which he learned while living in Jakarta as a
child. The 44th president follows in the footsteps of earlier
multilingual commanders-in-chief, such as Jefferson, Adams, and
Hoover. Now that the crowds of millions have left the mall and the
ball gowns have been sent to the Smithsonian, the question on
everyone's mind is a practical one: "How will the change in
administration affect the language sector?" In our predictions for
2009, we wrote that "the first Global American President will focus
more attention on international communication — and the requisite
translation and interpretation." We already see a few likely
possibilities on the horizon:

Interpreters move from combat zones to conference rooms. With the
State Department's renewed attention on diplomacy recently announced
by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the Obama administration's
promise to withdraw from Iraq, it is likely that the lucrative
contracts for providing wartime interpreters will begin to fade away.
Also vanishing — we hope — will be the US$25,000 bounties on the heads
of those interpreters and the news of their deaths in battle.

Language seen as a path to global competitiveness. Over the past eight
years, linguistic resources were valuable to the degree in which they
advanced security and intelligence initiatives. On the road to the
White House, Obama made frequent mention of his desire to enable the
U.S. to compete in the global economic landscape. The most important
languages for trade and commerce are not likely to be Dari and Pashto,
but rather languages like Chinese and Portuguese. In fact, our
e-GDP-guided availability quotient could help determine which
languages take priority for localizing the currently monolingual

Existing linguistic diversity harvested. We have written about the
government's challenges in finding sufficient linguistic resources.
The government's focus was on grooming Americans to learn new
languages from scratch, as opposed to doing what vendor managers and
training deparments of language services providers (LSPs) around the
world do every day — find people who speak the high-priority languages
natively, and give them training in translation or interpreting. While
language education is no doubt important, we hope that the new
administration will realize the benefits of harvesting the linguistic
fruits of immigration while still farming anew with an eye toward the

Greater recognition of domestic linguistic minorities. President
Obama's was the first U.S. inaugural address in history to use the
word "Muslim," in acknowledgment of the nation's estimated eight
million muslims, a segment of the population whose growing importance
we discussed more than a year ago. While there is growing recognition
of the stateside Spanish-speaking community, this market, too, remains
linguistically underserved.

Improved access to human, civil, and language rights. No more than a
few days after Obama entered office, the Food and Drug Administration
approved the first human trials of an embryonic stem-cell derived
treatment. Federal agencies are taking the lead from the new members
of the executive branch, and we believe that what the FDA's
announcement says for science will be true of the Department of
Justice's commitment to ensuring that the law is followed, especially
where civil rights are concerned, language rights principal among
them. In fact, just two days after the inauguration, the DOJ issued a
new Request for Proposals for Spanish translation and interpreting

The new administration offers enormous possibilities for reinvigorated
activity and enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which
could have important impacts on the language services industry. To
read more about this topic, register and download our latest Quick
Take, written in conjunction with Title VI expert Bruce Adelson,
"Title VI Enforcement to Grow under Obama."

Given the grim economic news that abounds at every turn, the logical
question is, "But where will we find the money?" This is nothing new —
the same question was posed even during times of economic surplus.
Still, government providers are motivated not just by dollars and
cents, but by dollars and sense — language services alleviate many
societal headaches. When the only other options are to let an accused
rapist walk free without a trial, to allow a child to drown before
help can arrive at the scene, or to risk a public health outbreak, it
becomes clear that these language services do not fall into the
discretionary spending category. Instead of simply crossing out the
language-related budgetary line items, organizations will have to look
for efficiencies in processes and technology to maximize access while
minimizing costs and complying with the law.

See related research: When Translation is the Law

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